Every year, one billion tourists travel the world. By the time I’ll finish this phrase, 300 tourists will have arrived somewhere in the world. This constant motion boosts local economies and creates unforgettable bonds. However, it can take a heavy toll on environmental and social systems. Just look at the fact that tourism accounts for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
We are already shortlisting “overtourism” to enter our dictionaries. The term coins the crossing of a tipping point beyond which the number of tourists in a popular destination becomes excessive. It then damages local communities, historical sites, and natural areas.
What is the flip side of this coin? Sustainable tourism is emerging as an alternative with many advantages for everyone involved. Collaborative international agendas recognise sustainable tourism as a force for sustainable development. We’ve seen initiatives such as World Tourism Day or the International Year of Sustainable Tourism and we expect many more to follow.
The negative side of tourism
Recent changes to our Earth’s climate stand as proof of the delicate dance between ecosystem and human activity. Neglecting the consequences of our frequent movement threatens the balance we need. We travel to escape, or to discover, but what do we sacrifice in the process?
First, unsustainable tourism can hurt the destination’s natural environment. There are two sources of threat.
The primary source of threat are the tourists themselves. We follow similar patterns when travelling. For example, we choose the same attractive destinations in congested periods of the year. We arrive at the same time, crowding scenic and historic areas to the point we end up eroding their unique value. Sometimes, we are completely reckless and litter the places we visit.
No better example comes to mind than the toilet paper trail from Lukla to Mount Everest Base Camp. This was documented since the early times of trekking as an adventure sport. Finally, we get there flying. Out of all transport methods, aeroplanes are the most intensive source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
To further meet demand, we develop infrastructure and activities that attract tourists. Seeking companies and governments often clear natural landscapes to accommodate tourist services.
Some of the ecological effects include the depletion of natural resources, wildlife habitat destruction, animal exploitation, and intense pollution. For instance, large cruises leave thousands of tons of waste behind. Furthermore, hotels can displace natural habitats when built without any prior study.
Secondly, unsustainable tourism can hurt the well-being of local communities.
“Overtourism” can pose threats to public health and resource availability. Pollution from touristic activities leave less clean water for the local population. The air quality is also worsened when tourists plan their visits in peaking periods of the year.
Another effect can be observed at the level of local prices. Popular tourist destinations tend to raise prices for food, transport, rent, and clothing. This ensures more profit from foreign tourist spending. However, this punishes residents, especially when the cost of living rises, but the local incomes do not reap any benefits.
Tourism can further become a source of economic dependency. Society is then vulnerable to the number and spending amount of visitors. Islands, for instance, are among the most dependent on travel and tourism.
Nobody can say where the limit lies for each of us, but ourselves. Even when we plan, we often choose either price or comfort above all considerations. Yet a new vision and innovative solutions are on the way. Several institutions, cities, and organisations lead the way.
The flip side of the coin: Sustainable tourism
The case of Copenhagen
The king is dead. Tourism as we know it is ending. The bold strategy released by the city of Copenhagen proclaims a time for “localhood”. Starting in 2020, they plan to reverse from years of locally-disconnected tourism. Long live the king.
Copenhagen is the second most sustainable destination in the Global Destination Sustainability Index. This is a leading benchmarking programme in tourism. Even so, the distress from “overtourism” is felt by residents. People recently accused a rewarded travel agency in the city of failing to take action.
Going further, Copenhagen’s sustainable tourism strategy aims to protect the social and ecological value of the city. Meanwhile, secure support for the growing travel industry is secured. Shareability is the winning word in this case. It refers to sharing a culture of innovation among local stakeholders. It encourages visitors to share valuable stories. Underneath, the main shift consists of strengthening human connections. Of empowering local communities.
Building higher social value is not the city’s sole action plan. The city plans to become carbon-neutral by 2025 and encourages tourism to adapt. Accommodation options use renewable energy for heating and cooling. Journeys around the city are optimised for biking, foot, and public transport. They even control tourist flows to avoid congestion and ecological distress.
The case of southern Thailand
Let’s further look at Andaman Discoveries’s strategy for sustainable tourism in southern Thailand. The travel agency also operates as a social enterprise. It serves local communities alongside visitors through touristic activities and social responsibility projects.
Andaman Discoveries’ journey into social responsibility began in 2004. They provided disaster relief as a tsunami ravaged the south of Thailand. The agency offers sustainable touristic experiences that also provide environmental and social value.
Conservation of local vegetation and biodiversity
They organise many conservation programs, such as restoring mangrove forests, orchids, and reefs. An added benefit is that they often educate the young and build youth action groups. The agency further organises sustainable tours and activities. These include eco-friendly snorkelling and scuba diving.
Empowerment of local communities
Tourism will not stop. Population growth and increasing affluence will only fuel it. Like Copenhagen, the agency encourages communities to use this economic lever to their advantage. As such, they invest in English and crafts lessons, travel planning and guiding courses, and village constructions.
In the community centre of Ban Talae Nok village, we find a hive of educational, commercial, and touristic activities. Through the homestay program, the village hosts and shares traditional experiences with travellers. The village found a new way of interacting with tourists.
The growing interest in sustainable tourism
Equally exciting, travellers report an increasing willingness to include factor in sustainability. As a proxy, 42% of respondents in a 3,500 adults U.S. study said they would be willing to prioritise sustainability in the future.
The actual challenge lies in understanding what sustainable tourism entails. Only 15% of people in the same study declared enough familiarity with the term. Before travellers can include sustainability in their trade-offs, they need a higher awareness of the term.
Some areas are more successful than others in attracting the attention of eco-conscious tourists. Almost half of the respondents in a Booking.com survey identify sustainable travel as staying in green accommodation. No wonder that eco-friendly accommodation booking is surging.
Meanwhile, the motives behind vary. 40% of survey respondents said they would choose a green accommodation to reduce environmental impact. Another 34% prefer it for the local experience.
No matter the initial motives, from here onwards, sustainable tourism will only expand. Copenhagen’s strategy, Andaman Discoveries’ projects in Thailand, and green accommodation serve as examples of how to attract the tourist of the future.